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Dunsany, Lord

Entry updated 13 March 2023. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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Working name of Edward Plunkett (1878-1957), Baron Dunsany (from the death of his father in 1899), prolific Irish author of stories, novels, essays and plays, in active service during World War One. Though primarily a writer of Fantasy, he is of sf interest through the widespread influence of his language and imagery, and through the spoof sf explanations and premises sometimes discernible in his short fiction, including the Jorkens tales (see below). The one-act play The Jest of Hahalaba (January 1927 Atlantic Monthly; 1928 chap) features Precognition via supernaturally conveyed newspapers from the future (see Timeslip) and was filmed as It Happened Tomorrow (1944) directed by René Clair. Lord Adrian: A Play in Three Acts (written 1922-1923; 1933 chap) is an Apes as Human drama directly influenced by the monkey-gland propaganda of Serge Voronoff; Lord Adrian, the offspring of a marriage in which the father has been surgically "enhanced", is para-human, and dies in the midst of his campaign to become a Prometheus bringing fire to the wild animals of England.

Dunsany's two Scientific Romances were written late in life. The weaker of the two is The Last Revolution (1951), which with less than the author's usual Humour depicts a Wellsian contemporary England in which self-reproducing Machines – they are not strictly Computers, and there is no real explanation for their consciousness and ability to play superior Chess – turn against an isolated human household. Despite these machines' ability to influence or conscript nonsentient devices such as motorcycles, their revolution is ultimately unsuccessful; as with H G Wells's Martians in The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898), the hostiles succumb to natural causes, in this case rust. Another malign chess machine appears in a pendant tale, "The New Master" (in The Little Tales of Smethers and Other Stories coll 1952). Dunsany's profound distaste for the Industrial Revolution and all of its consequences is given much more satisfying shape in his last novel, The Pleasures of a Futuroscope (written 1955; 2003), in which a contemporary man gazes upon the world of 600 years hence through a Time Viewer; the world he sees is a pastoral version of the Ruined Earth, rather in the mode and style of Richard Jefferies's After London: Or, Wild England (1885), complete with a drowned London (this time the Holocaust is nuclear), and a population whose Taboos rightly include all metals.

Dunsany's influence, especially on writers of Heroic Fantasy, was strong from almost the beginning of his long career, when he published a series of Fantasy collections whose contents are linked by imagery and reference: The Gods of Pegana (coll of linked stories 1905), Time and the Gods (coll 1906), The Sword of Welleran (coll 1908), which contains the famous The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth (1910 chap), A Dreamer's Tales (coll 1910), The Book of Wonder: A Chronicle of Little Adventures at the Edge of the World (coll 1912), Fifty-One Tales (coll 1915; vt The Food of Death: Fifty-One Tales 1974), and Tales of Wonder (coll 1916: vt The Last Book of Wonder 1916). The stories in these intermittently brilliant volumes made creative use of influences from Oscar Wilde and W B Yeats through William Morris – along with the very specific effect of the play The Darling of the Gods (1902) by David Belasco (1859-1931) and John L Long (1861-1927), with its misty fake-oriental setting. Through their sustained otherworldliness and their muscular delicacy, these stories in turn exerted a potent influence on later writers, including H P Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith; signalling his importance as an Irish writer, William Butler Yeats edited an early selection as Selected Writings of Lord Dunsany (coll 1912 chap).

For a more sustained argument about Dunsany's long career, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. But very roughly, in his second phase as a fantasist – after a rather ostentatious spurning of the genre during World War One, which he seemed to think too serious to be dealt with fantastically – Dunsany turned to novels like The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922; vt Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley 1922), The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924) and The Charwoman's Shadow (1926); the second of these did much to give geographical reality to the secondary universe (see J R R Tolkien) of high fantasy.

His third phase consists of the Jorkens Club Stories: The Travel Tales of Mr Joseph Jorkens (coll 1931), Jorkens Remembers Africa (coll 1934; vt Mr Jorkens Remembers Africa 1934), Jorkens Has a Large Whiskey (coll 1940), The Fourth Book of Jorkens (coll 1947) and Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey (coll 1954). Most of these stories were first published in magazine form, beginning with the first, "The Tale of the Abu Laheeb" (Christmas Number 1926, The Graphic), which is a missing link tale (see Apes as Human; Evolution). Like this example, some of the tall tales told by the unreliable Jorkens hint at outright sf, e.g. communication with and travel to and from Mars, and various Inventions including Antigravity, extraterrestrial Holocausts and the Futuroscope Time Viewer. Along with works by Joseph Conrad, G K Chesterton, Arthur Machen and Robert Louis Stevenson, these tales focused the attention of sf and fantasy writers upon the late Victorian and Edwardian Club Story as a suggestive mode for storytelling; Arthur C Clarke, Sterling Lanier and Spider Robinson are among the many who have written in it. Two non-Jorkens volumes, each featuring an unreliable narrator, are My Talks with Dean Spanley (coll of linked stories 1936), filmed as Dean Spanley (2008) directed by Toa Fraser, and The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders (coll of linked stories 1950), in each of which a human raconteur tells of his experiences after being transformed into an animal. Spanley remembers his life as a dog; Polders, within a standard Club Story frame, recounts being transformed into various creatures, and – like Wart in T H White's The Sword in the Stone (1938) – learning much from his adventures [for Transformation see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

Dunsany's later work, mostly non-fantastic, has perhaps justly attracted less interest, but his contributions as a fantasist are of high intrinsic merit, and his influence is pervasive. [JC/DRL]

see also: The Argosy; Vernon Bartlett; Basilisks; Counter-Earth; The Passing Show; Prehistoric SF; Sword and Sorcery.

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Lord Dunsany

born London: 24 July 1878

died Dublin, Ireland: 25 October 1957




Lost Tales

  • Lost Tales Volume I (Olympia, Washington: Pegana Press, 2012) [coll: chap: Lost Tales: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Lost Tales Volume II (Olympia, Washington: Pegana Press, 2013) [coll: chap: Lost Tales: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Lost Tales Volume III (Olympia, Washington: Pegana Press, 2014) [coll: chap: Lost Tales: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Lost Tales Volume IV (Olympia, Washington: Pegana Press, 2018) [coll: chap: Lost Tales: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Lost Tales Volume IV (Olympia, Washington: Pegana Press, 2020) [coll: chap: Lost Tales: hb/nonpictorial]
  • Lost Tales Volume VI (Olympia, Washington: Pegana Press, 2023) [coll: chap: dated 2022 but published 2023: Lost Tales: hb/nonpictorial]

individual titles: sf

individual titles: other

collections and stories

plays and poetry (highly selected)

  • The Jest of Hahalaba (London: G P Putnam's Sons, 1928) [play: chap: first appeared January 1927 Atlantic Monthly: pb/]
  • Lord Adrian: A Play in Three Acts (Waltham Saint Lawrence, Berkshire: Golden Cockerel Press, 1933) [play: chap: written 1922-1923: illus/hb/Robert Gibbings]


about the author


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